October 21, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

If Duterte can’t be expected to change, perhaps media should

President Rodrigo Duterte has accused media, specifically the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN, of being bastos and unfair and, in the process, he sounded just as foul as the objects of his ire.


Perhaps it is too much to expect Duterte to change. But, with due respect to my media colleagues, I believe they -- we -- can use some frank self-examination and an overhaul.


Duterte isn’t the first head of state to complain about the way some members of the press have used “alternative facts” in their reportage, to echo Donald Trump’s Kellyanne Conway.

To drive home my point, I would like to rerun a piece that I wrote in January 2002, during the incumbency of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, entitled, “The Making of a Masturbated Story”:

Vicky Garchitorena, former head of the Presidential Management staff, in a recent meeting with the Filipino community in San Francisco, conjectured that “as much as 50%” of the stories put out in Manila media were distorted or even fabricated.

As a new palace insider with first-hand knowledge of what President Arroyo had said about an issue or how it had been discussed in official circles, she confessed to being often taken aback by the slant given by the media to that issue -- stretched or twisted beyond recognition.

In the first of this two-part piece, I referred to that practice as “masturbating the news,” a term to which I was introduced as a cub reporter back in the mid-50’s. Perhaps today’s journalists are already using another term but the practice remains.

The constant refrain of government officials and prominent personalities in business and civil society has been that Philippine media have a tendency to “sensationalize” the news, to dramatize or exaggerate situations and even to distort or fabricate stories.

The media have been quick to protest this “generalization,” pointing out, quite rightly, that it unfairly tarnishes those who operate by the strictest standards of the journalistic profession (and it should be assumed that they are still legion).

But it cannot be denied that there are those in media who routinely stretch facts or present stories out of context for a number of reasons, the most benign of which is to grab the attention of readers, viewers, and listeners.

It also cannot be denied that there are those in government and the private sector who are just as guilty of misinformation and even outright disinformation. Or of simply not knowing what to say but saying it anyway.

On my recent visit to Manila, I decided to track the making of a masturbated story.

On Friday, Jan. 18, the Inquirer ran the headline: “US senator says RP next Afghanistan.”

The American official referred to, Sen. Sam Brownback, a member of the Senate foreign relations committee, never said that. The exact quote, which appeared within the article, read:

“It appears that the Philippines is going to be the second, the next target, after Afghanistan on the war on terrorism,” Brownback said during a stop in Wichita. “That Abu Sayyaf group is the target.”

It doesn’t take rocket science to take that statement in proper context.

The United States and its allies, the Philippines included, have vowed to go after terrorists wherever they may be. The Abu Sayyaf has been linked to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. President Arroyo and President George W. Bush have both agreed that the Abu Sayyaf should be eliminated. There is some urgency in this for the US because two American citizens are being held hostage.

Thus, to quote Brownback: “That Abu Sayyaf group is the target.”

The trouble is that there has been a great deal of fudging and equivocating -- too much masturbating -- on the part of the Arroyo government concerning the role that the Americans will play in the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf. That, coupled with the hypocrisy and piranha mentality of the opposition and the age-old “Yankee go home” rhetoric of the militants, has created an opportunity for sensationalizing, for creating suspense, conflict and confusion.

This was reflected in the treatment of the Inquirer’s Friday headline which expectedly, set off fireworks which, in turn, made for a perfect follow-up story on Saturday. Its headline the next day blared:

“US senator stirs furor for remark on RP.” The subhead read: “No way RP will be next Afghanistan.”

The lead rubbed it in even more: “The statement of a United States senator that the Philippines could be the next Afghanistan has triggered an uproar, with senators seeking a personal briefing from President Macapagal-Arroyo on the presence of US troops and activist groups demanding their immediate pullout.”

The usual quotable notables wasted no time in jumping into the fray, even if out of context.

Sen. Blas Ople “dismissed Brownback’s statement, saying the US senator was ‘speaking from a complete ignorance of Philippine reality.’”

Even a media veteran like Max Soliven couldn’t help getting into the act. In his column in the Sunday, Jan. 20, issue of The Philippine Star, the headline snapped: “Too much puffery over an American Senator being a loudmouth, too.”

And then he wrote: “What’s Brownback supposed to have said? That the Philippines would be the next Afghanistan? We know, and this should suffice, that we are as different from war-ravaged, Taliban-humiliated, feudal-minded (except in some warlord areas) Afghanistan as apples are from oranges.”

Max is right. The Philippines is not Afghanistan. But Brownback never said it is.

Always feisty, Max (my former boss, incidentally) described Brownback as someone who sounded “like a delegate from Dogpatch high on Kickapoo joy juice.”

Ouch!

In a tabloid that picked up the same story, Roilo Golez called Brownback’s statement “grandstanding” and said that “the latter’s fear is baseless and untrue. ‘It’s only part of speculation.’”

But wasn’t he also “grandstanding” by making an incorrect attribution to Brownback? The latter never expressed any “fear” about America helping in the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf and, as national security adviser, he knows that the US involvement is not “baseless and untrue” or “only part of speculation.”

The ones who are speculating are the militants and the political opposition who insist that, far from just giving advice and training, US troops will actually go into combat against the Abu Sayyaf.

And here is where Malacañang has been “massaging the message.” No. Definitely not. The Americans will just train our soldiers. Although they’ll observe on the frontlines. And they’ll fire back when shot at. But no, they won’t go into combat.

The fuzz explains the comment of Sen. Joker Arroyo, also in the Inquirer, that “the presence of US troops in Basilan and Zamboanga was an implied admission by the AFP that it could not defeat the Abu Sayyaf.”

Malacañang’s retort? Of course we can defeat the Abu Sayyaf ourselves without any US help. But we can use some help. But we really don’t need help. Although we are already being helped.

For those of us who live overseas, it’s disconcerting having to constantly strain to read between the lines when going over the news from Manila.

First, we’re never sure that the source of the news, especially when it is the government, is conveying it truthfully, with no equivocation, and without any material facts being withheld. And then, we’re never sure that the version being communicated in the media is an objective, complete, unvarnished portrayal of the facts.

To put it bluntly, we’re never sure that the news is not being masturbated.

Is it any surprise that the image of our country is so screwed up?

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.

gregmacabenta@hotmail.com